Disability Advocates Worry The Quick Shift To Online Learning Could Overlook Needed Accommodations

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Maddy Baldwin uses software on her laptop computer to learn how to type in this 2019 file photo at Perkins School for the Blind. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Maddy Baldwin uses software on her laptop computer to learn how to type in this 2019 file photo at Perkins School for the Blind. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the rush to move classes online, there are some concerns that students who need special accommodations might be left out.

For schools that specialize in behavioral and other needs, having to go to school remotely is presenting a lot of new challenges. Melissa Belsito, with the Center for Applied Behavioral Instruction in Worcester, explained a lot of her students struggle with change and depend on their schedules.

"We’re asking them to now do what they typically do at school at home," she said. "That doesn’t go over too smoothly with some of these students."

Most of her teachers are trying to maximize this time at home by sending home instruction packets with goals and lesson plans that parents can try to replicate. Still, she worries about her students, especially the kids who are non verbal and need very specialized instruction.

"I think it’s great that we’re trying to provide all of these opportunities and all of the resources these parents need, but I think it’s still going to be a big challenge without the proper supports in place outside of just parents or just a sibling that’s helping out," said Belsito.

Advocates have also raised concerns about how this quick shift online will impact students who are blind.

"When there is very little planning time involved and a quick ramp up time we’re very concerned that blind students are going to struggle," said Chris Danielsen with the National Federation of the Blind. He explained when it comes to online learning platforms, accessibility really varies. The ones that are widely used like Blackboard and Desire2Learn, have gotten pretty good. Danielsen added that while more colleges and universities have  improved access over the last several years due to pressure from his organization and others, there still is not a lot of broad uptake.

Still, he pointed out that it’s not always entirely the fault of a school when their digital technology isn’t accessible to students who are blind. Sometimes, vendors will say their product is accessible but, in reality, it’s not.

"There are things about online learning that need to be intentional," said Stephanie Cawthon, the director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. "It’s very difficult to automatically have something be accessible."

Cawthon said a lot of schools are looking for guidance about online learning right now. Currently, the big issue is bandwidth.

"The video calls will drop in the middle of a conversation. Then if you have a student who is using a sign language interpreter that access has just gone away," she explained.

Another common issue is when professors have students make a video as a class project. Teachers often forget to remind the class to include captions. And she said teachers need to be mindful of how much students are processing text each day.

"Sometimes when you’re reading captions and you're reading speech to text then you’re reading [books], it’s just this heavy text load," Cawthon said. "So if there are ways to think about what's really critical and what’s essential, that can be helpful."

But Cawthon added, online learning also comes with some benefits. Being able to record and rewatch a class, for example, is useful to everyone.

This segment aired on March 27, 2020.

Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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